How low should we set the bar for discussions about gender and trans issues? Maybe it’s enough that they happen at all, since there’s so much resistance to them taking place. When Channel 4 planned a debate as part of its Genderquake season of programmes on identity, it was under the strictest conditions of secrecy: the location wasn’t published and panellists (I was one, along with Germaine Greer, Caitlyn Jenner, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf and others) were asked to keep the list of contributors under wraps until the producers released it the day before the show.
That’s because whenever discussions about gender identity are attempted, they tend to get sabotaged before they can even begin. Venues are pressured into cancelling events. Women who take part in discussions that take a critical view on prospective changes to the Gender Recognition Act risk physical attack. And trans people willing to debate these issues are often ostracised by their own communities, deemed to be collaborating with their oppressors.
In these conditions, for Channel 4 to get the debate on air at all counts as an achievement. It took careful negotiation, a lot of cloak and dagger and multiple stand-in panellists to insure against dropouts. But what actually went out on air was a woeful missed opportunity. Conversation never took hold. Despite an impressively broad spread of participants (two trans women, three feminists of various stripes, a trans man and a genderqueer drag king), talk time was dominated by the two trans women. The trans man and drag king – two perspectives rarely given attention in gender discussions – hardly got to talk at all.
By the end of the hour, a fractious studio audience had resorted to heckling, with comments such as “you’re a man” shouted at Munroe from the floor. For those who thought the debate should never have happened – the trans activists who considered it to be denying their right to exist – this was a vindication. For feminists, it proved our voices always come last on this issue. All parties have plentiful reason for frustration, but the most significant one isn’t any specific shortcoming of this particular event. It’s that Britain urgently needs to have this discussion. At the moment, we can’t.
changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”
In 2016, the women and equalities committee published its trans inquiry report. It recommended changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”. More than two years later, there’s been no legislative progress, meaning both women and trans people have been left in limbo about how their conflicting rights will be resolved. Yet at the same time, there’s been a rapid informal adoption of gender identity as the defining marker for accessing women-only services and spaces.
From Labour’s all-women shortlists to the Guides to workplace mentoring schemes, things designed for women (or girls) are now open to self-identified women. A small shift in semantics, but a significant one. For women, it means their sex is increasingly cast as a matter of feeling, not fact – no minor thing when your sex is the one that takes the brunt of pregnancy, maternity discrimination, unpaid domestic labour, sexual harassment and rape. Areas established as female-only have become in effect “gender-neutral”, while gender at large stubbornly refuses to be neutralised.
For some trans women, particularly those who transitioned before the current consensus on gender identity, this new environment isn’t a triumph – it’s a threat. Having gone through sex reassignment and empathised with the experiences of being female in a sexist society, they understand that removing all limits and safeguards on the legal definition of sex creates a loophole for violent men. And that leaves trans women as vulnerable as it does all women: if the problem is male violence, then trans people have every bit as much interest as all women do in keeping bad-faith claims from gaining legal force.
Then there are the questions that can’t be answered as long as debate is considered to be violence. Why was there a 20-fold increase in children referred to NHS gender identity services between 2010 and 2017 and why has that rise been driven by female adolescents identifying as boys or non-binary? As many lesbians observed, there seems no place for butches: young women who don’t identify with the faff and submission of femininity now often tend not to identify as women at all.
Underneath the celebration of the “genderquake” are hard problems and grievous losses. Is it a triumph for liberalism to suggest to boyish girls they might be male and girlish boys that their true self is female? How can we counter sexism if institutions no longer “see sex”? Only through debates such as the one Channel 4 attempted can such questions begin to be answered; the next attempt needs to be better.